Your opinion of this course is going to depend on a few things, most notably how much you care about your score and your physical condition. If the answer to the former is ‘very much’ and the answer to the latter is ‘I’m from the Atlanta suburbs,’ you might want to stay away. In southwest England, a part of the golfing world in which there’s much adventure to be found, no course is more adventurous than this. Like Cleeve Hill, I think that I’d recommend this place more to most hikers than I would most golfers.
But if you really desire wild links golf—and I think that there are many now in these times of Instagram golf course architecture influencers who do—you should make a special pilgrimage to Perranporth. If there’s a wilder course in the world, I’d love to see it. Like many of the ‘lesser’ links course in the UK, this is a James Braid design and he wasn’t shy about routing holes right across a property’s most challenging features. Although I don’t suspect that any architect could have gotten around this property without leaving something controversial (save for Tom Fazio with a fleet of bulldozers and a multi-million dollar budget…and well, that’d swap an environmental controversy for a golf one), a few of the holes give the sense that Braid was trying to outcompete the property in severity.
Having said that, I managed to shoot a good score in one of my two rounds at Perranporth, so it isn’t impossible. But it was also a cool summer day with little wind after a wet spring where the course wasn’t playing too fast. As much as I love a browned-out course, there are some links courses like Perranporth and Rye where it’s probably better to play them in softer conditions. Winter turf conditions would probably be a good time to play Perranporth, although I expect that the winter Cornish weather would add another, less enjoyable layer of adventure.
The medium-length par 4 first is a good starting hole but gives no sense of the severity to come. We play into a right-to-left sloping fairway, then to a green built up on a shelf with a bunker at its front-left. You could probably get close to the green from the tee in firm conditions, but other holes will more than make up for what you’ll gain here.
Though it’s unconventional, this is just a great par 3. You can only see the top of the flagstick over the dunes in front of the tee. But unless the wind is blowing left-to-right, you should be aiming out to the right, at the left side of the dune ridge right of the green. That’s because the entrance to the green funnels balls down onto the green. If you go directly at the green and miss left, your ball may end up closer to some shipwrecks than the hole.
While I’m not sure that it’s a better course, I certainly prefer Perranporth to Tobacco Road. Perranporth is severe because it’s on a severe piece of ground. While I credit Mike Strantz for making use of the ‘natural’ features of that unusual mining spoils property, too much of what’s unusual and of questionable playing value was of his contrivance, not dictated by what was there (i.e. the fifteenth and seventeenth greens). Perranporth may have some over-the-top holes, but there’s nothing contrived about them—that’s just what the landscape offered. You have this at Tobacco Road too with green sites like eleven and thirteen. But for maybe every two great uses of a natural feature, there’s one designed one that is neither natural nor particularly good for golf.
If a new course were being built on Perranporth’s land today, I’d hope (but wouldn’t bet) that it’d be exactly the same way as Perranporth, even if it’d be possible to build a ‘better’ course. Not everything needs to be perfect. Not everything needs to be a ‘world top 100 course’ that low handicap golfers will love. We need to learn to love the grit in things, to learn to love their natural characteristics with all of what may seem to be blemishes. Because these days—and this doesn’t just apply to golf courses—it’s easy to make things really good. We have the equipment, we have the knowledge—although with golf courses that’s thanks to people like Tom Doak visiting places like Perranporth.
But it’s really hard to replicate the nuances and randomness of nature and it kind of defeats the purpose to try. Nature is highly individualistic…every piece of land is a little bit different. Unless we’re in Palm Springs, we should want golf courses to tell us even more about their land more than the architect who built them. Because a golf course doesn’t start like a painting or a symphony with a blank canvas or empty staff paper. It’s starts with something that may be more nuanced and interesting than anything that you could do with it.
Whatever you think of it, you certainly can’t deny that the Perranporth golf course tells us first and foremost about the Perranporth land. So whether it was by intention or there just wasn’t much else that he could do, James Braid gave with a course that is the perfect expression of the site’s nature. He did his job well here.